Passive Voice, Active Prejudice: Mary Seacole in Children’s Literature and Media


Harewood’s ITV programme celebrates the new statue of Mary Seacole in London–but not everyone is pleased.

This week, Britain’s ITV showed a programme on Mary Seacole entitled “In the Shadow of Mary Seacole.” In some ways, the programme could have been titled, “Mary Seacole in the Shadow of British Racism.” Many people who initially celebrated the fact that ITV was telling the story of the woman labeled “The Greatest Black Briton” in 2004 were dismayed to find that the programme was put on the schedule at 10:40 pm. Others complained that the programme focused on the opinions of white historians. Indeed, it seemed that most, though not all, of Seacole’s defenders in the programme were non-historians: actors, comedians, nurses. Unfortunately, none of this is new when it comes to Mary Seacole—and children’s books about the Jamaican Crimean War nurse are no exception.


You have two minutes for questions on . . . Mary Seacole: the biography with Mastermind presenter Magnus Magnusson listed as author.


I’ve written in various places about Mary Seacole before (see my article in Bookbird, for example, “My (Black) Britain”) so rather than rehash what I’ve previously written, I want to focus on a particular children’s biography that caught my eye. Its title is fairly unremarkable, Famous People: Mary Seacole 1805-1881, but what led me to order it last year was one of the listed authors. Christine Moorcroft—who I presume is the main author of the book—shares author credit with Magnus Magnusson. British readers of this blog will know Magnusson’s name as the original presenter of the long-running quiz show Mastermind; I was curious about his involvement in a book about Mary Seacole (as an Icelandic citizen all his life, I doubted Mary Seacole was his “specialist subject”). When the book came, I understood. Prominently on the front of the book, in between the authors’ names, is a multicoloured number “4”. The book was written as part of a Channel Four Schools project that combined short videos (still available here: although this is not an endorsement since I haven’t seen them yet—just in case you are interested) with books and related classroom materials. Other people profiled in the series include Cleopatra, Boudica and Gandhi, so the series clearly had a commitment to a broad range of historical figures from within and without Britain.


But although the series is committed to “historical evidence” “to show that the story is true” (both these quotations come from the promotional blurb on the website listed above), the book version of the biography is hampered by its use as an educational tool and its desire not to alienate a white British audience into some rather strange versions of historical accuracy. Factually, it often allows untruths for the sake of its audience; Mary Seacole’s mother “married a Scottish officer” (6), something for which there is no evidence and which overall historical patterns would suggest was unlikely. In children’s books, however, parents are still supposed to be legally married, and the complicated relations between Black and white people in the Caribbean were perhaps a bridge too far for this book. Later, when Seacole goes to London, “She was called names by other children because she was black. Nonetheless, she went back to London many times” (8). Racism can’t be that bad if she keeps going back—can it?


Children in London might call racist names, but the text exonerates specific British adults from any racism against Seacole. It mostly does this through the use of passive voice. Seacole goes to London to join Florence Nightingale’s nurses and is rejected—but not by anyone in particular, and not necessarily because she was Black: “Mary was told that no more nurses were needed” (11). When she eventually gets to the Crimea, and to Nightingale’s unit, “Mary went to see her and was given a bed for the night” (13). Nothing is said in the rest of the text that even hints of racism, and the book ends quite happily: “Mary was famous when she arrived in London. People had read about her in the newspapers. She was the guest of honour at a dinner with the army. The soldiers cheered her” (19). The book never calls out British officials or Florence Nightingale for racist attitudes, and lessens the impact of Seacole’s heroism by avoiding the real struggles she went through to be accepted.


Right to be skeptical? A still from the deleted CBBC episode of Horrible Histories.


Moorcroft and Magnusson’s reluctance to talk about British racism is a justifiable attitude—if you look at what happened when other accounts of Seacole’s life tried to depict this racism. Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories book series generally avoids discussions of racism (there’s no Horrible Histories: Rude Racists, for example), but when the television sketch show based on his books did a segment on Nightingale and Seacole where both women were jostling each other over who would get the attention of a PR agent, the show received official complaints for appearing to criticize Florence Nightingale’s attitude toward Seacole. The complaint was upheld, and the segment is no longer available to watch ( One of the people who complained was Professor Lynn McDonald, a member of the Florence Nightingale Society. McDonald, and the Florence Nightingale Society, regularly write letters and newspaper articles criticizing various forms of media for their portrayal of Seacole.


Which brings me back to presenter David Harewood and ITV’s programme, “In the Shadow of Mary Seacole”. One of the people interviewed by Harewood was Mark Bostridge, who wrote a biography of Nightingale—and who is also a member of the Florence Nightingale Society. He calls the “myth” of Mary Seacole “faking history at its worst” (“In the Shadow” 1.24). This claim is left alone, being countered with a response about the caring concern of Seacole. I’m not arguing that Seacole was not caring, but by not putting Bostridge’s claims next to one of the other people in the programme who talk about the kind of medicine that Seacole practiced, the show appears to accept that Seacole was, as Harewood says directly after Bostridge’s comments, “medically unqualified” (1.36). Imagine if Nightingale was portrayed as learning her nursing skills from a group of religious zealots in only four months (she did her training with Lutheran “deaconesses” and only spent a short time with them): would we still look at her as the heroine she has become? How we describe people matters, and it matters especially in books and media for children. We should never teach children to passively accept a power hierarchy—like Mary Seacole, we should constantly challenge it.

Gilroy's Bubu's Street counters stereotypes about Black migrants to Britain and their homes.  Pictures by George Him.

The Architecture of Home and Empire in Children’s Books

Last week, I did my blog on migrants, but this week I was prompted by a friend looking at “vernacular architecture” in children’s books about Africa and the Caribbean to do some thinking about the pictures of “home” that appear in children’s books, and why those pictures matter. For many beginning readers, children’s books are a first source of information about what the world looks like beyond their front doors, and so both the text and the pictures that these stories include matter; I would argue that the pictures matter more than text in creating a lasting impression in the mind of the child.



I grew up with illustrations like these from Syd Hoff (from A Book About Christopher Columbus by Ruth Belov Gross) where naked natives lived in the woods.

Take this little quiz, for example: In what kind of houses did the indigenous people Christopher Columbus encountered live? When I asked myself this question, I came up with a blank—not poor houses or huts, but no houses at all. I have a collection of Columbus books for children, and started to look through them, and realized how this lack may have been created in my mind. Many children’s books about Columbus show the “natives” on the beach or in the jungle, but never show them where they lived, slept, or ate. Robinson Crusoe, as the Ladybird Read-it-Yourself version from 1978 depicts him, built a house in a matter of days. The man Crusoe rescues has no home and no name—Crusoe gives “Friday” both, and with them come the benefits of civilization.


Crusoe rebuilds civilization in the Caribbean, complete with English flag, in this depiction from the Ladybird version with pictures by Robert Ayton.

This can lead to a leap of logic that the “natives” didn’t have homes, allowing for the racist narrative of indigenous people as being animal-like, living off the earth in trees or caves, to be easier to accept. In children’s picture books written and illustrated by white Europeans, this image of indigenous people living “nowhere” can extend to any black or brown people in the global south. Jimmy Buffett’s Jolly Mon (Harcourt Brace 1988) is one example of an author whose book depicts the “simplicity” (“Storyteller’s Note”) of the Caribbean and never shows its people near anything other than cabanas. Gillian Oxford’s Anansi the Spider-Man for Heinemann (1999) gives the main character a straw hut with no door or windows to live in.



In this version of Anansi the Spider-Man, the lovely Miss Selina lives in a straw hut without any door. Pictures by Gilly Marklew.

But the modern Caribbean is not at all a collection of grass huts or beach cabanas. And authors/illustrators can get it right; the “My Home” series from the late 1950s depicts Trinidadians living in modern, if rural, settings with houses that have windows and doors. It is true that the architecture in the Caribbean is different than it is in Europe, reflecting not the poverty or lack of civilization of the people, but the climate. Caribbean homes have to be built to withstand flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters, so they are often built of cement blocks and placed up on stilts. The verandas that surround many Caribbean houses give a place for people to gather and enjoy the cool breezes at the end of the day. Authors with Caribbean connections depict these “vernacular” architectural features as a matter of course, but non-Caribbean viewers may not see or understand them, just as someone not from Buffalo might misunderstand the need for the three entry doors to my house (every single one is for insulation against the freezing winters, not as some sort of Fort Knox protection).


Isabel Crombie’s My Home in Trinidad has houses with windows and doors.  You can just see the cement blocks on which the house is resting.


Houses in Verna Wilkins’ Hurricane (Tamarind 2004) show the verandas common to Caribbean houses.

An understanding of the purposes behind vernacular architecture features also needs to be applied to early Black British literature for children in order to understand it today. Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headmistress in the UK and mother to Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy, deliberately tried to counter some of the racist images of how Caribbean migrants lived when she wrote for Leila Berg’s Nippers series in the early 1970s. In Knock at Mrs Herbs’ (1973), Gilroy depicts the communal homes shared by Caribbean migrants when they arrived in Britain; these homes, usually crumbling Victorian mansions, were bought communally and shared amongst several families when they found themselves turned away from white-owned lodging houses. The house where Roy lives shows the ways that community is valued in the notes that neighbors leave each other to tell their whereabouts; it also shows solidarity through the Black Power messages on the wall. In Bubu’s Street (1975), the outside of such homes are shown, and it is the Black residents who are living in fixed-up and newly-painted homes of bright colors. That they did the fixing up is implied by the boarded up and broken-windowed homes in dull brick right next door. Gilroy counters the narrative that Black migrants did not care about their homes and were happy to live in slums by the images she creates in her books.


Gilroy’s Knock at Mrs Herbs’ creates a sense of community through text and pictures (illustrations by Shyam Varma).



Gilroy’s Bubu’s Street counters stereotypes about Black migrants to Britain and their homes. Pictures by George Him.

Home is a basic concept in children’s books, particularly in picture books for the very young. The architecture of home has traditionally been connected, in books about Black people, with the racist assumptions of empire. We need to ensure that we are sharing books with children that depict “vernacular architecture” accurately, but also with understanding of why and how the architecture came about. Because how we think about ourselves and others, especially for children, is intimately tied up with ideas about home.

How to Solve a Migrant Crisis with Children’s Books


The diary series was a popular format; Cooke used it to interrogate racism in Britain. Illustrated by Brian Duggan.

Last week, Alex O’Connell made the recently republished memoir for children by Floella Benjamin, Coming to England (Macmillan), the Times children’s book of the week. The tagline (in the paper edition but not on the website) calls Benjamin’s book, “a timely tale of migration” and O’Connell writes, “There aren’t many successful memoirs pitched to this age group, but Floella Benjamin’s story . . . is gripping”  ( I’d like to unpack some of the language here, particularly the notion of the timeliness of the story, the apparent absence of memoirs for young people, and the idea of what makes a memoir for children successful.


The 1997 Puffin edition of Floella Benjamin’s memoir. Cover illustration by Michael Frith.

Benjamin’s book was first published in 1995, after she had rose to prominence as a children’s television presenter on shows such as Play School but before she had become a baroness. Britain was at an uncertain moment with regard to race relations; only two years earlier, 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence had been murdered and the two white youths charged had not been prosecuted, due to insufficient evidence (and, it would later be determined, investigative failures by the police). Thus Benjamin’s book was originally speaking to an audience with a heightened awareness of British racism against Black, and particularly Caribbean, people (whether they felt that racism was a justified response or not). Benjamin discusses her own experiences of racism, concluding after one incident, “That was the day I realized that in the eyes of some people in this world I was not a person but a colour” (82). Benjamin’s reaction to racism, however, was not to fight the power structure, but accept it. She learns to speak the “Queen’s English” after her teacher calls her a guttersnipe for using patois; Benjamin puts away her Trinidadian accent for “appropriate times” (101). She also accepts that in order to “make people see me as a person” (116), she would “have to work twice as hard as anyone else and be twice as good” (116). Benjamin’s story provides a model for dealing with racism that puts the onus on the victim, rather than the racist, to change their behaviors and attitudes; it is a model that has worked for Benjamin, allowing her to maintain a strong sense of self-esteem that she tries to convey to her readers. It also makes her a “good immigrant”—one willing to accept the ways of society without pushing back (and perhaps this is why it has been reprinted several times and is now being touted as a “timely” book for a society uncertain over new waves of migrants).

Leslyn in London: NICHOLS, Grace

Front cover of Nichols Leslyn in London, illustrated by Annabel Large

But Benjamin’s model is not the only one, and there are several book written for a similar age and audience that address issues of migration and the racism that results differently. Interestingly, some of the best are fictional memoirs written by authors who migrated later in life (such as Grace Nichols) or who are British-born (such as Trish Cooke). Poet Grace Nichols wrote one of her only novels for children, Leslyn in London (Hodder and Stoughton, 1984) more than ten years before Benjamin’s memoirs appeared; Britain was, if anything, even more gripped by racial tension than in 1995, as the book appeared during the time period of the Brixton and Handsworth riots and the New Cross Fire. The protagonist, Leslyn, is quite young in the story—a first year junior—but this does not safeguard her from racist experiences. She is called a “nig-nog” (23) and “gollywog” (43) but this does not make her want to try harder to please. Her teacher finds her restless in school, and Leslyn makes up imaginary friends for company. Success comes, not in overcoming racism, or in working twice as hard at school, but in finding a person—a new girl at school who feels similarly left out—with whom she can be herself, as she is, rather than how others want her to be.

Bradford-born Trish Cooke also wrote a fictional migration memoir, which was published in Franklin Watts “Diary” series (the series included titles such as Diary of a Young Nurse in World War II and Diary of a Young Roman Soldier). The Diary of a Young West Indian Immigrant (2003), unlike Leslyn in London, is about a somewhat older girl (the book spans the period from 1961 to 1966, when the protagonist, Gloria, is between the ages of 10 and 16), but the reading level is suitable for a younger reader. The many illustrations and short page count (96 pages total) also place the book in a younger reading category. Cooke’s book also deals with racism, of both a casual and more direct kind. On Gloria’s first day of school, the teacher pats her hair and lets the other students in the class do the same (37), so the next day Gloria straightens it in order to better fit in—but the teacher and students “all looked at me with pity” (38). It is apparently better, in her teacher’s eyes, that Gloria be petted like an animal than try to fit in. Later, when she is older, her school careers counsellor tells her she is “out of her depth” (68) when she says she wants to become a lawyer, and suggests factory work instead. As with the hair incident, Gloria at first tries to accept her fate and fit in, taking the factory placement work experience. But when they offer her a permanent place, Gloria decides not to take it, writing that her counsellor, “didn’t give me the right advice. I intend to find out how to go about becoming a lawyer, and if not a lawyer then something more fitting to me” (91). Cooke’s narrative reinforces the notion that sometimes even well-meaning white people do not have answers that work for migrants.


Bloom’s novel, like fellow poet Nichols’ novel, is no longer in print.


I’m glad Benjamin’s memoir is back in print, but the books I discuss here, along with Valerie Bloom’s Surprising Joy (Macmillan 2003) and Kate Elizabeth Ernest’s Birds in the Wilderness (Methuen 1995) are not. Fictional accounts of migration can often address issues of racism more directly than a nonfiction memoir—and may give readers more options for thinking about their own experiences. Having more accounts of migration experiences, fictional or not, accepting British society or rejecting it, would be timely for all British readers to remind them that migration is not a new issue, and there are lots of ways to navigate its pitfalls and celebrate its joys.

A Good Immigrant of another Time (But the Same Story)


Salkey’s Danny Jones thought leaving Britain might be the only solution. Illustration by Errol Lloyd.

This week, Nikesh Shukla’s edited collection, The Good Immigrant, appeared, a volume of 21 essays by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers about their experience in Britain. He edited the collection because, as he writes, “while I and the 20 other writers included in this book don’t want to just write about race, nor do we only write about race, it felt imperative, in the light of . . . the backwards attitude to immigration and refugees, the systemic racism that runs through this country, that we create this document” (“Editor’s Note”). Too many white Britons (and Americans, for that matter) see BAME Britons (or Americans) as bad immigrants—thieves of one kind or another, prompting those white Britons (or Americans) to “want their country (or their job or their girl/boyfriend or their place at university) back.” This attitude persists even when the writers are not, in fact, immigrants, but born and bred citizens. White people are entitled, but everyone else has to earn their rights, prove their worth.


Shukla’s Good Immigrant appeared to excellent reviews–and, hopefully to a more receptive audience than some Windrush Generation authors experienced in the 20th century.

This has all happened before. Multiple times.


The writer Andrew Salkey, who came to the UK from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation. Photo Caribbean Review of Books.

I could write (and have written) about many different examples, but I’m going to highlight just one today in this blog, the writer Andrew Salkey. Salkey came to Britain from Jamaica in the early 1950s, part of the Windrush Generation. The Windrush Generation encompasses migrants from all parts of the English-speaking Caribbean (as Sam Selvon pointed out in Lonely Londoners, white Britons had a habit of lumping all Caribbean people together and calling them, collectively, “Jamaicans” as if there were no other islands or political differences between them) who came to Britain between 1948 and the early 1960s because the UK had asked them to come to fill postwar labour shortages. Salkey, like the other migrants, was British—he had British citizenship as part of the colonial system—and he came to the “Mother Country” to work. He should have been seen as a model citizen. The colour of his skin, however, meant that Salkey had to earn respect through hard work.

And he did. He not only worked for Henry Swanzy’s BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices, contributing stories and commentary and interviews, he worked for other parts of the BBC as well, including the African Service, the Pacific Service and the General Overseas Service. He got broadcasting jobs because he was extremely well-spoken (you can hear him speak in a documentary on Caribbean Voices, here: ) and—in terms of his own stories—he followed Swanzy’s dictates for what a good contributor should do. Philip Nanton, in his article “What does Mr Swanzy want?” (Caribbean Quarterly 46.1, 61-72) says that the answer to this question is simple: Henry Swanzy wanted local colour in work that was publishable by British publishers. That meant that the stories presented on the BBC had to be comprehensible (at least mostly) to a white audience, as well as giving them the ocean breezes, calypso, and other acceptable tropes of the Caribbean that white listeners expected. Most of the contributors, including Salkey, praised Swanzy for the work he did in editing their stories and poems to a “metropolitan standard” because they wanted to be published where it would matter—meaning London, not the Caribbean.


Salkey’s “disaster sequence” from Oxford University Press allowed him to present a broader picture of the Caribbean to children. Illustration by William Papas.

It was through Salkey’s work on Caribbean Voices that he caught the attention of Oxford University Press, who published Salkey’s “disaster sequence” for children, Hurricane, Drought, Earthquake and Riot. Like his Caribbean Voices work, these novels were set in the Caribbean and were full of local colour. But, because of his earlier success, he was able to do something different. These books showed that life in the Caribbean was not all calypso music and coconuts on the beach—the natural disasters that strike the area affect the economy and its ability to grow. Caribbean people were not all poor and rural (the books center on middle-class families in the capital city, Kingston). The last book in the sequence, Riot, shows labour unrest in Jamaica, subtly laying the blame for problems of continuing poverty and a breakdown of community on the colonial system. Salkey continued in these novels to be well-spoken (they are mostly written in “school” English, not patois) and provide a vivid picture of his “exotic” homeland. But his children’s work shows him starting to become a “bad” immigrant, or at least a “less good” one.

Salkey stopped publishing children’s books with Oxford after Riot, but he continued to write for children, and to support other Caribbean writers. He was one of the founding members, in 1966, of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement (CAM), along with John La Rose and Kamau Brathwaite. By 1968 he was an editor and advisor to Jessica Huntley, a Guyanese migrant who had come to Britain ten years earlier and who had started Bogle L’Ouverture press with her husband Eric Huntley. Bogle L’Ouverture came out of Jessica Huntley’s desire to produce books for Black people, by Black people, in Britain. Salkey advised her on publishing work by Walter Rodney, Bernard Coard, and Linton Kwesi Johnson—all of whom were or became revolutionaries of one kind or another. He also offered Huntley his own work for children, literature that was very different from what he had produced for Oxford, much more overtly political. Joey Tyson (1974) is a fictionalized account of Walter Rodney’s expulsion from Jamaica from a child protagonist’s perspective; The River that Disappeared (1979) details American imperialistic attitudes and drug trafficking in the Caribbean (not the kind of local colour usually looked for in a Caribbean story for children), and Danny Jones (1980) discusses the difficulties of being Black and British in contemporary London. At the end of this last novel, the title character is pondering a “return” to Jamaica, the country of his parents’ origin, thinking it might be the “more hopeful” option than being hassled by the police in Britain just for being Black.

By the time that Danny Jones was published, Salkey had himself left Britain for an academic post in the US. He continued to write for and correspond with Jessica Huntley and many of the writers he had known in Britain, but American universities were happy to do what Britain at the time was not: hire Salkey to teach creative writing to university students. The US, unlike Britain, already had a tradition of African and African-American or Black Studies programmes, and even smaller places were eager to have a professor who could teach a class or two of Black Literature. Britain, on the other hand, has only just begun its first Black Studies programme at Birmingham City University this year.

In the last chapter of Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant, Musa Okwonga writes about how he spent his life in Britain on the one hand being “an unofficial ambassador for black people” (225) and on the other frequently “stop-searched by police, on one occasion merely for waiting by a bus stop” (225). Okwonga went to Eton and Oxford, but this was never enough: “we were still seen as guests, our social acceptance only conditional upon our very best behaviour” (231). Like Salkey, Okwonga finally had enough and left for somewhere he could feel welcome. By not extending that welcome, Britain is continuing—generation upon generation—to lose some of the people who could add to its great literary heritage.

Whose World? World Book Day and the £1 selections for 2017


Blackman’s Eye for an Eye was a World Book Day selection in 2003, but there are no BAME authors on the 2017 list.

Last week, the World Book Day selection committee in the UK announced their titles for 2017—and they have spent this week defending them.

The event, for those who don’t know, is held yearly in the UK, and originally started as a parallel event to UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day, held annually on Shakespeare’s birthday (23rd April). The UK event has since been moved to March, but it continues to promote reading through offering several choices of £1 books (for which most school children are given a book token anyway, making the books free for many). The choices are at various reading levels (so, this year there are pre-school choices and choices for KS1, KS2 and KS3 level readers) but otherwise are quite random; one of the joys of World Book Day is that one might get a £1 book from any author, and it may be the only time that particular story (the books are usually fairly short) is printed


Enid Blyton’s stories are among the World Book Day choices for 2017.

So I was disappointed this year, along with many other people, to find that the World Book Day selections contained very little in the way of diversity. Peppa Pig, Where’s Wally?, and Horrid Henry, and the Famous Five provide familiar characters—all of them white (well, except for the pigs) and decidedly middle class, and none of them books that will in any way challenge the status quo. Of course there’s nothing wrong with books about middle-class white British people (or pigs), and I’m sure many children will enjoy the selections. But for a young BAME reader who is looking for something that reflects their own experience, they will not find it in this selection.

David Almond’s book is the only one on the list that clearly indicates the inclusion of a major character who is not white British, and I’m looking forward to reading it (especially because its setting, Lindisfarne Island, is one of my favorite places in the world). But Hassan is not the book’s protagonist; rather he is someone who “fascinates” the central character Louise because of the mystery and danger surrounding him, according to the World Book Day information pages (

I am not arguing that David Almond, or any of the other authors for that matter, should have included more or more central BAME characters. I would certainly rather see well-written books about middle-class white children than books that try to be “inclusive” without any kind of thought or effort or understanding of what they are trying to include. This only leads to tokenism—the sidekick friend who brings chapattis for lunch, or the outsider immigrant who is “saved” from isolation by the kindness of the white protagonist or adult. I have my own personal concerns about some of the attitudes that these books embrace, but I do not particularly want to single out individual selections for criticism.


Children in the UK are often asked to dress up as their favorite book character for World Book Day, but some critics have pointed out that BAME children do not have favorites who look like them.

Because the point is not about the individual selections, but about the group selection. White faces on the covers, white main characters, white authors. Nikesh Shukla, the editor of the new and important The Good Immigrant, told Charlotte Eyre of The Bookseller that voracious readers are made “by design not accident” ( That design, for any child, includes books that are comfortable and books that are challenging; books that reflect their own existence and books that teach them about the existence of others. For me growing up in the US, that meant Corduroy and Bedtime for Frances, Little Women and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. We didn’t have World Book Day, but we had Scholastic Book Club, which offered (and still offers) cheap paperback editions of books for schoolchildren, and all of these books were part of their repertoire at one time or another. Groups that are trying to get books at low- or no-cost into children’s hands have a responsibility to think about the wide audience that they are trying to serve.


Don Freeman’s Corduroy offered readers like me a window into someone else’s world at the same time that it provided African-American readers with characters that looked familiar.


WBD director, Kirsten Grant, argued that the lack of diversity in the 2017 book selection was not the fault of the selection committee. “Each year, publishers are invited to nominate their authors to write a £1 World Book Day book,” she told the Bookseller. If publishers don’t offer it, they can’t include it. Perhaps that is true—but is it not then the WDB selection committee’s responsibility to encourage the publishers to offer a broader selection? There are clearly guidelines for the books they do consider in terms of length and (to some extent) content (“age appropriate” in some way). There are books at each level with boy and girl protagonists, so clearly that is a consideration. I don’t know how they approach the publishers, but I’m guessing that if they simply added in a line to their invitation to submit a book saying, we are looking for books that represent the broad range of experiences and cultures found in the UK (or something similar), the number of books with BAME characters (and maybe even authors) they had to choose from would increase. It would be nice, of course, if they didn’t have to do this—it would be nice if publishers sought out these authors and books more often on their own, not just for World Book Day but for their own lists. But merely saying, oh, publishers didn’t send us anything good is not enough. Because everyone involved in the children’s book industry is responsible for encouraging and embracing books for all children.


I happened to be in the UK for World Book Day in 2003, and was so excited that one of the selections was Malorie Blackman’s An Eye for an Eye. To me, the selection summed up the best of British literature: it was high-quality fantasy that both challenged and absorbed readers, accessible to its reading level without being dumbed down. It also happened to deal with issues of race and racism. Not every book that WBD offers will do all (or even most) of what Blackman can do. But more of them can—and should.


To cover or not to cover your dreadlocks?  If kids are just curious, then it doesn't matter.

Locked Out: Hair, Children’s Books, and people of African Descent

Early in my university teaching career, Carolivia Herron came to speak to my children’s literature students. She had not too long since published her first children’s picture book, a book which had a bright, strong, African-American girl main character, and which could also teach readers about the African-American storytelling tradition of call-and-response. However, it was not the narrative technique that had brought the book to attention, nor the protagonist’s character. It was a single word—half of the book’s title. Carolivia Herron’s first picture book, illustrated by Joe Cepeda was Nappy Hair (Dragonfly, 1997), and the book raised a heated debate over whether the word “nappy” was an insult or not, and who was allowed to use the word in a picture book, and who was allowed to read the word to children.


Carolivia Herron’s book raised controversy about who could talk about nappy hair.

Herron, on a website to celebrate the book’s twentieth anniversary, explained the reaction: “why were folks so upset? I’ll tell you two of the real reasons. They were upset because they did not want a white teacher talking about black hair, and since many of them always used the word nappy as a negative word, they couldn’t appreciate a book that used nappy as positive” ( Obviously, since the book is celebrating its twentieth anniversary, it has survived, and even been followed up by other books, such as the poet bell hooks’ Happy to be Nappy (Jump at the Sun, 1999) and Nappy (Brand Nu Words, 2006) by Charisse Carney-Nunes, illustrated by Ann Marie Williams. Carney-Nunes, a former classmate of Barack Obama, weaves the idea of African-American history into her picture book by including biographical sketches of famous women with nappy hair, including Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Josephine Baker, and Sonia Sanchez. The reviews of all of these books have been mixed. Many are positive about the idea of celebrating African-American hair (and particularly female hair; although Stevie Wonder famously used the word to describe his own hair, all of these books focus on African-American girls). Others still worry about the connotations and history of the word nappy, and of its potentially negative use outside the African-American community.


Carney-Nunes’ book mixes hair and history.

Girls, and African-Americans, are not the only people who have had hair concerns, however. The politics of Black British boys’ hair became an issue in the 1970s with the rise of Rastafarianism and Black Power movements. Paul Gilroy, in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack quotes from the 1981 Scarman report. Lord Scarman led the inquiry into the 1981 Brixton riots; Scarman suggested that “young hooligans” (Gilroy 135) had appropriated the symbols of the Rastafarian religion, “the dreadlocks, the headgear and the colours” (135) to excuse their destructive behavior. Scarman was not the only one to believe that dreadlocks were associated with criminality; Sally Tomlinson, in Race and Education, points out that schools debated whether or not to ban dreadlocks (49) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A young person’s hair was not, as in the case of the “nappy hair” books, simply a reminder of a (possibly negative, possibly positive, depending on your point of view) past history, but a political and particularly anti-authoritarian statement, one that faced censure from official government institutions such as the police and the schools.


Why is the Rasta hat-wearing girl placed outside the fence when all other unaccompanied children are in? Illustration by Dan Jones in Inky Pinky Ponky.


British children’s books had an uneasy relationship with dreadlocked or Rastafarian-symbol-wearing child characters. Especially in picture books, if child characters wore dreadlocks or green, gold and red Rasta hats, they tended to appear incidental at first glance. Illustrator Dan Jones’s follow-up to Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann’s Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street (Kestrel, 1977) was another collection of playground rhymes set in London’s East End, Inky Pinky Ponky (collected by “Mike” Rosen, as he was known then, and Susanna Steele in 1982). Unlike Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street, which shows turbans and burkas and saris and dashikis but not a single red, green and gold Rasta hat, Inky Pinky Ponky has two: both children, one boy and one girl. The girl is watching a policeman’s interaction with an older white gentleman; she doesn’t appear to like what she sees. The boy is pictured on the book’s cover, raising a fist at a white girl who is looking down at the ground. Neither of these illustrations seems in any way directly connected to the playground rhymes that accompany them, so it is difficult to know if there is any significance to the Rasta hats. But given Gilroy’s and Tomlinson’s comments, it is difficult to see these characters as random, especially given that the only two characters associated with Rastafarian symbols are depicted as connected with the police and with aggression.


The only closed fist belongs to the boy in the red, green and gold hat.


That the negative meaning of Rastafarian and reggae symbols had filtered down to children is obvious in Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus, originally published in 1984 by the community-based Peckham Publishing Project. The story is of a four-year-old boy worried about being made fun of in school because of his dreadlocks. But interestingly, the class has been prepped for Marcellus; the teacher tells him, “When I told the children you had locks/ They all wanted to see” (n.p). However, Marcellus’s dreadlocks are not associated with any kind of political or religious statement in the book; they are just a mark of difference, and one that the other children, after their initial curiosity, ignore. My copy is a 1995 edition published by Black Butterfly in the US, and I am unsure if the text was changed along with the pictures (which were originally done by Yinka Sunmonu, and which were done in my edition by Alvin Ferris). Dreadlocks have a potentially negative connotation, but without any kind of reason given. Having solved the “problem” of wearing dreadlocks to school, the sequel, Marcellus’ Birthday Cake, shows the same little boy—but without dreadlocks.


To cover or not to cover your dreadlocks? If kids are just curious, then it doesn’t matter.


More recently, dreadlocks have become normalized through characters like Rastamouse. But Rastamouse is a case in point for the use of children’s literature to contain the potentially “dangerous” Rastafarian. Rastamouse, unlike the Rastafarian-symbol-wearing “hooligans” of the Scarman report, is a crime-fighting mouse who works for the president of Mouseland. He has been co-opted. His dreadlocks are, in keeping with his character, kept neatly under his hat, and the history of the politics of Black British hair is tucked away with it.


A different vision of Rastas and the law . . . Rastamouse as depicted on CBBC, characters by Genevieve Webster and Michael da Souza.

Proper Attire as a Racial Issue in Children’s Literature


What is proper attire? And who decides?

This week, photos emerged of French police in Nice surrounding a woman wearing a burkini, the full-body bathing suit designed for Muslim women to allow them to enjoy the summer and protect their modesty at the same time. The police made her remove part of her clothing due to a ban on the garment in certain municipalities (including Nice). While the French courts mull over the legality of the various bans, Twitter was a-tweet with criticism. One particular photo kept recurring, that of some nuns on the beach, fully habited, generally with a tag line of “Will the police make these women undress as well?”


The picture of the nuns was used to show the absurdity of the laws, but it also highlights something else: proper attire is and has been consistently an issue for BAME people for a long time. It is an issue of power—and white people generally have the power to make the rules about attire for everyone else. So, no, of course the French police will not make nuns remove their habits; they are only concerned with women who might be “liable to offend the religious convictions or (religious) non-convictions of other users of the beach,” according to the tribunal. Even well-intentioned bodies reveal the power hierarchy. It is great news that this week the Scottish and Canadian police “allowed” Muslim women to wear the hijab while in police uniform, but why should they have to “allow” it in the first place?


It’s not a class issue–poor white women may feel bad about their clothes, but in the end they still get the one dress that matters.


Now, you might say that proper attire, especially in children’s literature, is about class more than race. Didn’t Meg March in Little Women feel embarrassed because she didn’t have the right clothes when visiting rich friend Sally Gardiner? And didn’t Anne Shirley come to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert with only an ugly yellow wincey dress that was too short for her in Anne of Green Gables? Yes, of course. But Meg was lent appropriate dress to the occasion (and learned to disdain frippery at the same time, being a good girl), and Anne had clothes made for her. The clothing was a sign to the reader that people should not be judged by their outfits, but by their characters. As soon as the lesson is learned, clothing ceases to be an issue (neither Meg nor Anne ever have to defend any ragged children from people making fun of them); not that they don’t continue to want pretty things, but they end up getting all the pretty things that they truly need because they are loved and cherished as people.


No white dress for Lorraine in Dhondy’s “Free Dinners” Cover image by Alun Hood.


Life doesn’t come up quite so rosy for some non-white characters in children’s books. Farrukh Dhondy, in 1978, wrote about Lorraine, a Black girl, and Pete, a white boy, both of whom receive “Free Dinners” because they are poor (you can find the story in Dhondy’s Come to Mecca). When the Bishop comes to school to give prizes, the deputy head tells the pupils how to dress. Girls have to wear “flesh-coloured tights” (67). It is at this point that dress becomes an issue, because Lorraine answers back, “Whose flesh, miss?” (67). The deputy head sends her out of the room; when Lorraine shows up in “black velvet hot-pants and a black silk shirt” (67-68), the deputy head tells her she can’t win a prize looking like that. Pete thinks she looks “tarty” but Lorraine’s response is revealing: “Lorraine said she’d wear what she liked out of school time because it was her culture” (68; emphasis mine). Pete admires her for this, and even tries to take her out once or twice, but reveals his casual racism to Lorraine and she blocks any further attempts to connect with Pete. But Lorraine has not learned the “proper” lesson about attire, and because she refuses to dress like white people, she ends up losing all her clothes—getting work as a topless dancer after school finishes, and later as a prostitute. Dhondy, as author, is not showing the error of Lorraine’s ways, but rather the way that society, in a Foucaultian sense, punishes those who refuse to conform. Lorraine was not allowed to dress as she felt appropriate to her culture; her clothing might have been deliberately provocative but it was also a statement about a political kind of Blackness that her teachers rejected. Dhondy’s story is important, because it came after years of comics and stories where Black characters (or caricatures) longed to (or sometimes actually did) wash themselves white. In the time that Dhondy was writing, some schools banned the Rastafarian colours of red, green and gold, and, as Sally Tomlinson points out, “schools worried over allowing pupils to wear dreadlocks” (Race and Education 49) in case it would lead to anti-authoritarian behavior.



More recently, the issue of Muslim girls wearing the hijab has also been raised in children’s books. Randa Abdel-Fatteh’s Does My Head Look Big in This? is probably the most famous hijab story, possibly because of its humorous look at being female and Muslim. In some ways, though, Abdel-Fatteh’s story tries almost too hard to make wearing the hijab a positive experience (at least in the end); in her own life, as Geraldine Brooks of the New York Times points out, Abdel-Fatteh stopped wearing a hijab at 17, “anxious about prejudicing her job prospects” ( Tariq Mehmood also wrote about the hijab in his Diverse Voices-award winning novel, You’re Not Proper. Mehmood, who was a member of the Bradford 12 in 1981, a group of Asian Britons who made petrol bombs to defend against racists and who were arrested for it, depicts in his novel what it means to choose to wear the hijab—as well as what it means to have it stripped from you.


I don’t know of any books written by Sikh authors about the wearing of the turban that are set in modern times (if you do, please comment). But Sikhs are frequently singled out, just as Muslims are, for wardrobe infringement, and in fact are often mistaken for Islamic “terrorists” because they are not white and wear “different” clothing. Children’s books are a major source of education for young people, and thus people involved with children’s books need to share those that educate (about cultures and religions) but also those that support young people and the choices they make about their dress. To do that, we need more books that describe what constitutes “proper” attire.